From our formal incorporation in 1990 under the name of Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF), our organization has merged into a link-tank (now called LiKEN) connecting wide webs of communities, scholars, practitioners, and government agencies. From the beginning, our work has been about building collaboration across sectors— linking grassroots community mobilization and popular education, with the best available science while working closely with government agencies.
Our story begins over 30 years ago when cabinet maker and Vietnam vet, Craig Williams, went to a local meeting and heard about Army plans to incinerate chemical weapons eight miles from his home in Berea, Kentucky. Working tirelessly, Craig mobilized his local community to research possible toxic impacts and safer solutions. These local efforts rapidly scaled into a national coalition, as the Central Kentucky grassroots leaders joined forces with people who lived near the other eight proposed weapons incinerators across the country. Through wide webs of community, scholarly, and inter-agency collaboration this effort moved forward federal legislation and groundbreaking national and international collaborations to demonstrate and implement safer technologies for chemical weapons disposal, and to support job creation in Central Kentucky and elsewhere through reclamation jobs. These efforts leveraged over $300 million in Department of Defense funds for alternatives research and continue to shape global frameworks and best practices regarding weapons demilitarization. In 2006, Williams received the Goldman Environmental Prize for this work.
Over the years, KEF evolved to engage diverse issues, but a core focus has always been community-based assessment of risks and benefits to human and environmental health, local public engagement, and local jobs. In the 2000s, KEF conducted community-based participatory research in the form of a Health Impact Assessments designed to inform health-based solutions to community concerns surrounding the retirement or retrofit of coal-fired power plants in western Kentucky. These Health Impact Assessments were achieved with multistakeholder partnerships that included local purchasing districts, residents, and municipal and utility officials. In Louisville, KEF collaborated with neighborhood groups like Rubbertown Emergency Action (REACT) and other stakeholders in campaigns to expose how industrial manufacturing facilities impact the health of west Louisville residents. In recent projects, KEF has continued to monitor community risks, as well as moving increasingly towards proactive planning to inventory and increase community assets. Several years ago, KEF initiated a project for watershed monitoring by students in eastern Kentucky high schools. In 2018, after a three-year campaign spearheaded by KEF, the nation’s largest pipeline company abandoned plans to repurpose a 75 year old pipeline running through six states, from transporting gas too more dangerous fracking liquids.
In 2015, a network of scholars formed the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) as a non-profit incorporated in the state of Kentucky, with KEF as our fiscal sponsor. Founding LiKEN director, Betsy Taylor, was soon joined by Mary Hufford, Julie Maldonado, and other core partners from two decades of work in asset‐based community development. Everyone involved in those first years of LiKEN had worked for years at the boundary between grassroots citizen science and academic scholarship. We founded LiKEN to create a stable civic and research infrastructure for long term community / scholarly collaboration. Our ever widening team of LiKENeers brings in-depth experience from work in Appalachia, the rural South, coastal Louisiana, the Dakotas, California, Washington DC, urban Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Our international collaborations span many global regions, especially in India, and South and West Africa.
Feeling an ever-deeper alignment in our missions, LiKEN and KEF merged in February 2018. KEF continues as a project within the expanding LiKEN network dedicated to leverages resources for community-to-community learning for evidence-based action for sustainable livelihoods. We realized that our models for community-based work were convergent. These models have emerged over decades as we have learned from what works in a wide diversity of projects and issues. Our mission is to support local work by communities. Communities wrestle with a daunting range of issues–from health, jobs, education, to cultural and environmental stewardship. Especially in under-served communities, it can be hard to ‘connect the dots’ between issues that require specialized knowledge. It is hard to overcome these knowledge silos to weave together practical solutions. Wealthy communities have professional planners to ‘herd the cats’ needed for holistic planning. LiKEN has evolved to fill the gaps in planning resources faced by under-served communities. Key in this is the capacity to build government and scholarly support systems for community-based assessments of community risk and community assets.
We are partners and members of various networks for collaborative, multistakeholder, policy-relevant, knowledge exchange and translation: Kentucky Nonprofit Network, National Rural Assembly, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Association, Rising Voices: Collaborative Science with Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Solutions, National Climate Assessment, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
In February 2018, the LiKEN main office moved into a charming Craftsmen-style house that we rent from Hunter Presbyterian Church at the corner of Nicholasville Road and Rosemont Garden in Lexington, KY. Our new space serves as a convivial gathering space for widely scattered LiKENeers and our partners. Our vision for the LiKEN House is to build community through civic, scholarly, and creative events. We have a convenient conference room that is well set up for videoconferencing, and a comfy living room where people can converse, hang out or read from our fantastic library. There is a full kitchen for our guests’ needs. We supplement expenses by renting our 3 bedrooms to Airbnb lodgers and to visiting university speakers and staff. We are located near the University of Kentucky and many downtown attractions (see our lodging brochure, LiKEN House lodging).